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Vicksburg History

Old Hig’s body: ‘as fresh as a new blown rose’



Arnold advertised embalming in this ad from the late 1800s.

Matthew Higgins earned a place in local history, but he had to give up his life to do it. His body was the first in Vicksburg to be embalmed by the current method.

And according to the Vicksburg Daily Herald on Saturday, Sept. 30, 1882, he looked “as fresh as a new blown rose.”

Though the Egyptians had mastered the science of embalming centuries ago, knowledge of the process had been lost. Consequently, funerals were usually held within a day of a person’s death.

When the Herald ran the story about Higgins, he had been dead almost a week. He had practically become a poster figure for John Quincy Arnold’s funeral home, for his body, in a wooden coffin, had been on display for all to see.

He was a pauper, “a man of large muscular development, about fifty years of age;” the Herald stated, “and accustomed during life to all sorts of rough treatment, and the severest physical tasks.”

He had died at City Hospital on Sept. 25 at 3 a.m. after a congestive chill. Dr. William T. Balfour was his attending physician.

Frank Fisher was the undertaker for John Quincy Arnold (Fisher later owned the funeral home). Fisher said he was proud of “Old Hig,” as he referred to the corpse, and he nonchalantly removed the lid to the coffin so the reporter could view the body.

“Here’s your stiff,” Fisher said, and then he encouraged the reporter, “Feel him,” which he declined to do. But he was curious: How could a body be kept so long in such warm weather? Fisher told him that he had just returned from a course in the new process of arterial embalming, and Higgins was his first project. The new embalming method had become popular the year before when the body of Pres. James A. Garfield was embalmed. He had been murdered in 1881.

“In the case of Higgins, the demonstration is perfect,” the reporter wrote. “The face has a glow about it such as is noticeable on the countenances of the dead an hour or so after death, and it wears a peaceful and quiet smile as though in sleep. The skin is soft and velvety, and the body is as cool as though it had been in a refrigerator. There is not the faintest suggestion of an odor of any kind arising from the body.”

The reporter said that Fisher had mastered the art of embalming and “is now ready to preserve dead bodies, and to ship them any distance, or at any season of the year. … Call and see his present subject.”

Fisher said he planned to keep the body on display for several more days and said he was confident it would remain in its present state for at least a year. In six or eight months he said, he planned to disinter it to make sure of the result.

A few weeks later Fisher had a chance to prove his ability again when a Mr. Judd from Dubuque, Iowa, died unexpectedly at a local hotel. A note in the Herald on Nov. 24, 1882, from Judd’s widow reported that the embalming and shipping the body home was a complete success.

Matthew Higgins was·buried in Potter’s Field in Cedar Hill Cemetery on Oct. 3, 1882, no doubt more famous in death than he had ever been in life.

The advent of chemical embalming greatly changed the role of the undertaker. He often went to the home of the deceased, especially in the country, with a portable embalming kit. He usually had in the buggy a portable “cooling board” on which to lay the body, and his home embalming case contained special instruments, embalming fluids, combs, razors, and sheets. He might also supply badges for the mourners: black for the elderly, white for the young, and a combination of the two colors for young adults.

Sometimes he provided coffins, though many were homemade and country stores usually kept a supply on hand. Traditionally, sawdust and wood shavings from homemade coffins were placed inside the box as superstition taught that if those bits of wood were tracked into the house, they would endanger whomever they touched.

Aunt Malena loved to tell the story of someone who died on the Hunt place in Campbell’s Swamp. A cooling board was placed, the end sticking through a crack between logs of the cabin, extending for a foot or more, and the other inside resting on the back of a straight chair. The body was placed on the board by the neighbors, who waited for Mr. Arnold to arrive. A courting couple, on the porch, sat down on the end of the cooling board, which caused the body and board to rise. Those inside the cabin fled the building. They had witnessed a resurrection!

The undertaker often had some shrouds on hand which were gown-like coverings made to be draped over the body to resemble a dress. Like a hospital gown, shrouds had no back, prompting my friend, the late Lenora McAlpin, self-proclaimed mayor of Grand Gulf, to say, ”l don’t want to be buried in a shroud. I don’t want to meet the Lord with the back of my gown out!”

Funeral customs have changed a lot since Matthew Higgins earned his place in history. It was probably the first time in his life he had been dressed up—and had nowhere to go.

Despite all the free advertising poor Old Hig garnered for the funeral home, the undertaker still charged the county $5 for the burial.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

Vicksburg History

The senator and the oyster



Walker Brooke (public domain)

It was Friday afternoon and a typical winter day in Vicksburg in 1869. Federal troops, garrisoned in the city to “reconstruct” it, policed the muddy streets. The inauguration of U.S. Grant as the 18th president of the United States was only a month away.

Local attorney and politician Walker Brooke and his friend, Sgt. Levi Fletcher of Maine, a Yankee soldier who was stationed in Vicksburg, stopped by the Bank Saloon, operated by F. Piazza, at the corner· of Crawford and Washington streets.

Seating themselves at a table in the rear of the building, they enjoyed friendly conversation. As it was February, a month with an “R” in it — which most folks thought made it safe to eat oysters — the two men ordered some, probably on the half shell.

They were having a good time, and when Brooke picked up a very large oyster, Fletcher joked that he bet the senator couldn’t swallow it whole. Brooke bet he could, and he plopped the big oyster into his mouth. As he swallowed, part of it lodged in his trachea, the other half in the pharynx, and Brooke began to choke. He tried to cough it up, but the oyster wouldn’t budge.

Sgt. Fletcher immediately sent for Dr. E.T. Henry, and the doctor opened Brook’s trachea with a knife. Using his fingers, the doctor forced the oyster back into Brooke’s mouth, but it lodged again in the esophagus. By this time, Brooke was bleeding badly and passed out.

Six more physicians arrived — doctors Hunt, Whitehead, Balfour, O’Leary, Duncan and finally, Dr. Swift (the latter two were stationed in Vicksburg with the occupation forces). None of them could alleviate the pain, though the oyster was removed.

At dusk the unconscious senator was taken to his home which stood at the corner of South and Cherry streets where the First Presbyterian Church is now located. At 3:15 the next morning he died, and later that day a group of citizens met to pass resolutions of respect.

A native of Virginia, Brooke was born on Christmas Day 1813, and was a graduate of the University of Virginia. He taught school in Kentucky for two years before moving to Holmes County, Mississippi, where he made his home in Lexington. In 1840 he married Jane Eskridge of Carroll County, and to them were born 10 children.

Brooke served in the state Senate from 1850 to 1852 when he was elected to the United States Senate to fill the unexpired term of Henry Stuart Foote who had been elected governor. Brooke and his family moved to Vicksburg in 1857 where he entered the legal profession.

Brooke was a Whig but eventually became a Union Democrat. As a Warren County delegate to the Secession Convention in Jackson in 1861, he urged that the measure be put to popular vote. Once the die was cast, he cooperated with the secessionists and was a member of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States in Montgomery, Alabama. When he sought a full term as a Confederate senator, he was defeated and returned to Vicksburg.

Walker Brooke was a very popular man in Vicksburg, and when his funeral was held Feb. 21, 1869, Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, the Presbyterian Church where he had worshiped and the courthouse where he had gained fame in the legal profession were draped in black. The courthouse bell tolled as the procession passed, and the United States Army Band played the funeral dirge for the former Confederate official.

While his body lay in state, it was guarded by a dozen lawyers and a dozen Masons as an act of respect. Services were conducted by Dr. C.K. Marshall and the Rev. Mr. Wheeler, and pallbearers included many prominent men as well as several officers of the Union Army.

The editor of the Vicksburg Daily Herald noted that Brooke “fell in the midst of friends and in the fullness of his strength.” He was 55 when he died. The editor went on to say that Brooke was a speaker noted for his power, beauty and effect, and described him as one who “read much and thought more.”

“A more noble, true or generous man than Hon. Walker Brooke will never ‘hallow a grave’ in Warren,” the editor concluded.

A year later, a portrait of the senator was placed in the courtroom of the Old Court House where it still hangs.

Years later, a very large pearl, retrieved from the murderous oyster and possibly responsible for the tragedy, was lost when the Fletcher home burned.

Walker Brooke was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, and a simple stone marks his grave, but therein lies quite a story.

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Gen. Grant’s ‘Truce’ of Vicksburg



The statue of Gen. Grant in the Vicksburg National Military Park. (photo by Calstanhope - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

There’s a small white stone in the Dockery family graveyard at Lamartine in Columbia County, Arkansas, with the simple inscription “Truce” on it, and therein lies a story.

Thomas Pleasant Dockery was a Confederate general in the Siege of Vicksburg, commanding the second brigade under Gen. John S. Bowen.

Dockery was born in North Carolina but grew up near Magnolia, Arkansas, on the Louisiana-Arkansas border, not far from Shreveport. He entered the Confederate States Army as a colonel.

During the siege, Mrs. Dockery, like many officers’ wives, tried to stay close to the army to be near her husband. She found lodging at a home in the county outside Federal lines. She could hear the roar of the cannons, and she spent many anxious moments concerned about her husband’s safety. Like many others, she prayed that relief might come for the entrapped Confederates, but it never came.

After the surrender on July 4, 1863, Mrs. Dockery persuaded her host to take her to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters so that she might learn something about her husband. The planter found a rickety old buggy, one in such poor con­dition the Yankees wouldn’t want it. He caught an old mule so frail he had also been spared, tied some leather and rope into a harness, hitched the mule to the buggy and he and Mrs. Dockery started for Vicksburg.

It was hot and dusty but eventually they made it to the vicinity of Grant’s headquarters. A guard refused to allow them to pass. That, however, was before Mrs. Dockery burst into tears — and he couldn’t bear to see a lady cry. She begged the guard to go to Grant and tell him that a lady in great distress needed to see him. The soldier soon returned with an invitation for Mrs. Dockery and her friend to come to headquarters right away.

Terrible stories had been circulated about Grant, but he received Mrs. Dockery courteously, gave her cool water and seated her in a comfortable chair. She told him of her concern about her husband, asking for permission to visit him. Grant couldn’t give her a pass without breaking his own rules; however, he would get news of Gen. Dockery by sending an orderly to find out about him.

Grant insisted that his guests join him for dinner, and when the meal was finished, the soldier returned with a message that Gen. Dockery was in good health and would visit his wife as soon as he was permitted.

Grant wrote a pass on a scrap of paper for the Confederate officer and his wife to return to their home in Arkansas upon their honor and pending further orders. The Northern commander slipped it into her hand as they parted.

It was several days before arrangements could be made for the Dockerys to leave, and the story was told that on the day of the departure of the Confederate soldiers, followed by their officers and wives, Grant was watching. At his feet was a white Spitz dog that had attached itself to headquarters. He had become a favorite of the men and of Gen. Grant.

As the Dockery’s carriage drew near, Grant picked up the little white dog and handed it to Mrs. Dockery, saying, “Let this be a flag of truce between us, madam, and may my men possess the courage you have shown during the siege.”

The dog was from then on called Truce and became as greatly loved by the men in gray as it had been by those who wore blue.

Eventually Gen. Dockery was exchanged and returned to his duties in Confederate service, taking Truce with him. One story of the dog’s service was that one night after a long march, with the men stretched out on the ground asleep, one soldier was aroused by Truce tugging at his sleeve. Annoyed, he tried to make the whining dog leave him alone. Undaunted, Truce went to wake the next soldier.

Just then, a bullet grazed where the soldier’s head had been resting. By then, everyone was awake, ready for a fight. Truce’s keen perception of danger had saved their lives.

Truce survived the war in which the dog had become a mascot for the Confederate soldiers. It is said that at the dog’s death he was buried in a small satin-lined casket, and some Confederate veterans conducted the burial.

Only the name Truce is on the gravestone, but there is quite a story that goes with it.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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In defense of a bedbug



The portrait of Seargent Smith Prentiss, who died in 1850, was painted posthumously by an unknown artist and has been hanging in the courtroom of the Old Court House Museum since 1860. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

Verse by great poets has been written in honor of a louse — and possibly other critters — but it was a Vicksburg attorney who delivered perhaps the most eloquent speech of his illustrious career when he spoke in defense of a bedbug.

The attorney was Seargent Smith Prentiss, considered one of the greatest orators in U.S. history. Speeches and pleas by the attorney and congressman captivated audiences and brought lavish praise from such men as Daniel Webster.

Prentiss came to Mississippi from Maine at the age of 19 in 1827. For a while he lived in Natchez and taught school for the Shields family at the Maryland Settlement in Jefferson County. He was admitted to the bar and soon moved to Vicksburg where he was active in Whig politics and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The small-in-stature Prentiss was 5-feet 6-inches tall and walked with the aid of a cane because of a badly crippled foot. His forehead, like Webster’s, was high and broad, and his eyes were as penetrating as his voice was commanding. No other attorney wanted to face him in court for Prentiss seldom lost a case.

Two things Prentiss enjoyed were liquor and practical jokes.

When inspired with enough spirits, Prentiss was a master at entertaining. He was in just such a condition in the mid-1830s when he made his famous bedbug speech.

One evening Prentiss and fellow attorney Sam Gholson were traveling and stopped at a hotel in Raymond, Mississippi. After several hours at the bar the two secured a room for the night. For an hour or more, they slept soundly in the double bed, but Prentiss awakened suddenly to discovered that they had many small “bedmates.” He shook Gholson until he was awake as well, and they then debated whether to leave the hotel or meet the enemy head on.

Intoxicated to the point of being ridiculous, Prentiss and Gholson decided to attack. So, arising in their night shirts, they lit the lamp, drew their pistols and preceded to exterminate the tiny enemies. As a bedbug came forth, they would smite it with a bullet.

An interpretation of the massacre of the bedbugs at a Raymond, Mississippi, hotel was done in pen and ink by David Kleinman, an artist who grew up in Vicksburg but now lives in Ocean Springs. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

It didn’t take long before the owner of the hotel came running. Prentiss told him they were simply exercising the right of self-defense, “granted by law of man and God.” Amid the frantic pleas of the landlord, the shooting continued until mattress and bed were demolished in the smoke-filled room.

And then a tiny, last culprit appeared and Prentiss caught the critter. Gholson immediately urged execution of the sole survivor of the massacre, but Prentiss pled for mercy. Both decided the bug deserved a trial by his fellow countrymen. Quickly, they got another attorney who was staying at the hotel to act as judge, and the landlord’s sons and others were brought in to serve as the jury.

For two hours Gholson, speaking for the state, prosecuted the case against the bedbug. Then the eloquent Prentiss spoke in the insignificant creature’s defense.

Prentiss talked for more than three hours, until dawn arrived, and the guests at the hotel who crowded the room to hear the great orator termed it the best address of his career. Unfortunately, no court stenographer was present, so Prentiss’ words were not recorded for posterity.

The fate of the bedbug? He was acquitted. He deserved it after over five hours of speechmaking past the midnight hour. He had enjoyed the services of Seargent Smith Prentiss, something many humans couldn’t financially afford.

The bedbug? He was set free to probably bite again.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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